Making Digital Surveillance Unacceptable? Security, Democracy, and the Political Sociology of Disputes

Claudia Aradau /& Emma Mc Cluskey (2021)

International Political Sociology, Online first

Abstract. Despite extensive criticisms of mass surveillance and mobilization by civil liberties and digital rights activists, surveillance has paradoxically been extended and legalized in the name of security. How do some democratic claims against surveillance appear to be normal and common-sense, whereas others are deemed unacceptable, even outlandish? Instead of starting from particular “logics” of either security or democracy, this paper proposes to develop a political sociology of disputes to trace how the relation between security and democracy is shaped by critique in practice. Disputes entail critique and demands for justification. They allow us to account for the constraints which govern whether an argument is deemed acceptable or improper; common-sensical or peculiar. We mobilize disputes in conjunction with Arjun Appadurai’s reflections on “small numbers” in democracies in order to understand how justifications of surveillance for security enact a “rise in generality,” whereas critiques of digital surveillance that mobilize democratic claims enact a “descent into singularity.” To this purpose, we analyze public mobilizations against mass surveillance and challenges brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). We draw on interviews with a range of actors involved in the disputes, the parties’ submissions, oral hearings, judgments, and public reports.

Extract. “We propose a political sociology of disputes to advance an agenda that analyses the contestation and critique of security practices. The terminology of a sociology of disputes was coined by Luc Boltanski, mostly known in IR for his work with Laurent Thévenot on pragmatic sociology (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006), and with Ève Chiapello on “the new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005). Disputes have been part of a wider vocabulary of social and political contestation which includes controversies, scandals, and affairs. Among these, controversies and struggles have been most fruitful for recent analyses of security beyond securitization theory. Yet, disputes have often been used interchangeably with other vocabularies of contestation (but see Martin-Mazé 2017). While controversies and disputes are both coinages of pragmatic sociology, there are subtle, but in our view important, differences between these. We argue that we need to attend to the specificity of disputes and the constraints upon the different grammars of justification and critique in Boltanski and Thévenot’s work, to precisely shed light on how some arguments against bulk surveillance are rendered unacceptable, and thus “off-the-table.” We approach these questions of acceptability through the dynamics of generality/singularity and the capacity of justifications and critique to “rise in generality” (Boltanski 2012b). To understand how the general and the singular play out in democratic disputes, we supplement the discussion of generality/singularity with anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s (2006) critical reading of “small numbers” in liberal democracies. Appadurai’s work on majority/minority allows us to advance a political sociology of disputes.” (p. 3)

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